Why We Need to Talk About Lawyers’ Mental Health Now

Big law has a big problem. Here's what we can do about it.

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Big law has a big problem.

The reality that lawyers suffer from high rates of mental health problems, addiction, and problem drinking can no longer be denied in light of the 2016 study conducted by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation which has a nationally renowned drug and alcohol treatment center.

Now what?

A “National Task Force on Attorney Well-Being” was assembled following this study to make recommendations on what law schools, law firms, bar associations, and others, can do about these serious problems. I have read both the study, the task force’s report, and recent press reports coverage about how the recommendations of the task force are to be implemented.

To be frank, I am disappointed.

As someone who has practiced law for thirty years, lived with depression for fifteen years, and blogged about living with depression while working as a lawyer for ten years, I expected more attention to be placed on mental health problems in the law. Sadly, it was not.

My disappointment is underscored by the recent article, “ABA Sounds New Alarm on Substance Abuse, Firms Pledge Action.” The “action” referred to is an initiative which includes a “seven-point framework” pledge that the ABA hopes all firms will embrace by the start of 2019.

The framework, which “seeks to reduce the level of substance abuse in the profession,” was developed by lawyer and alcohol and drug counselor Patrick Krill. What I know of Mr. Krill is that he was a fine lawyer and has done much to help shine the spotlight on problem drinking and drug abuse in the legal profession. Both he and the task force are to be commended for this.

But the emphasis on alcohol and substance abuse pushes appears to push depression and anxiety to the back seat. As reported in “ABA Sounds New Alarm on Substance Abuse, Firms Pledge Action,” “the framework, developed by lawyer and alcohol and drug counselor Patrick Krill, seeks to reduce the level of substance abuse in the profession.” The article continues, “Next on the list is a move to disrupt the “status quo” of drinking-based events and functions,” the article reports. “Employers are asked to break from the expectation that all events include alcohol, and for events with alcohol, appealing non-alcoholic alternatives should be available.”

Meg Meserole, chief human resources officer to Biglaw firm of Akin Gump, was interviewed for the article “Legal Industry Admits It Has a Substance Abuse Problem, But Recovery Won’t Come Easy” in the National Law Journal. “Meserole said her firm was particularly looking for new ways to hold events without alcohol present in light of the ABA’s effort. Akin Gump attorneys are not becoming teetotalers, however, and she said the firm’s attorneys were working toward an ‘appropriate balance.’”

I believe the emphasis was placed on addressing the problem with on problematic drinking among lawyers because it is common knowledge within the profession that many lawyers drink too much. has long been understood to be to a many lawyers do. For years, drinking has just been a part of law firm culture, and often, a “badge of honor.” Lawyer Assistance Programs, which exist in every state to confront alcohol, drug and mental health concerns, originated decades ago to address this problem and many, if not most, were based in on the AA philosophy. See, for example, the history and mission of the D.C. Lawyer Assistance Program posted on their website.

Historically, scant attention had been paid to lawyer mental health problems for years because most LAP’s found this to be outside their area of expertise or philosophy. Many who called LAP with these problems issues were referred for outside treatment. A good thing, no doubt. But there wasn’t much help beyond that.

I started a weekly depression support group for attorneys ten years ago in my legal community. At first, the idea was to incorporate it into a long-established “Lawyers Helping Lawyers” committee at my local bar association. But that committee told me they did not want depression to be part of what they do. They were all problem drinkers and recovering alcoholics who saw what I was doing as different in nature and approach. Our group was not going to adhere to an AA philosophy. This is so because many of those who struggle with depression don’t have an alcohol or drug problem. One study found for those with a diagnosis of current alcohol dependence, the presence of an independent major depression disorder was about 20%.

The fact is that depression is the leading cause of adult disability in America and around the world. The ABA study showed that 28% of lawyers had struggled with some kind of depression in the past 12 months of the survey. That is four times the rate found in the general population and, truly, an epidemic. Even more troubling was the fact that 61% of attorneys surveyed had struggled with depression at some point in their legal careers. That is almost ten times the rate found in the general population.

I hope and pray that the efforts of the task force are successful. But I remain concerned that unless we place just as much emphasis (or, I would argue, more in light of the statistics) on the poor mental health of practicing attorneys, we will have missed the mark. 

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